Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Toys That Teach?

My mother took the kids on an outing to a local toy store today, where we got them some great new playthings: a bag of marbles, a wooden sailboat, and two toy horses.

The store is proudly called "Toys That Teach." It's a lovely place, with a great selection of well-made, quality toys.

But I found myself thinking, why couldn't it be called Toys That Delight?

I know the owners are trying to distinguish themselves from the sort of toy store that sells loads of plastic crap and mesmerizing-narcotizing gizmos, but the trend toward insisting upon the educational merit of toys is way over the top.

Infant toys now come with little usage guides for parents, usually embellished with a lot of pedagogical hoo-hah designed to make mom or dad think that a $10 rattle will set their kid on an early path to Harvard. With toddler and preschool toys, you always find some pious little text on the box about all the skills the product will help develop (cognitive! communications! social!).

Don't get me wrong: I think there are a lot of really crappy toys on the market today, and that it's worthwhile to seek out toys that encourage certain kinds of play -- and avoid whole categories of playthings that colonize rather than inspire children's imaginations. (I'll write a whole post on this one day soon.)

But there's some dour Protestant work ethos at work in the notion that toys shouldn't be merely fun. Somewhere behind all the educational claims about toys is a defensiveness about pleasure for pleasure's sake, coupled with the high-stakes/low-creativity standardized-testing model of schooling brought to us by No Child Left Behind.

Bah on all that. Of course children learn through play. But if there's one lesson I want to be sure my kids take away from playtime, it's that fun and joy and delight are precious in their own right.


Maddy said...

Indeed! Have you also noticed that toys are being 'hyped' differently e.g. increases spatial awareness, advances fine motor skills, challenges cognitive development etc. Sounds impressive - to the parent maybe.
Best wishes

Magpie Ima said...

While there's a lot of money to be made peddling cheap plastic junk in quantity, there's also money to be made preying on the insecurities of parents who will pay through the nose to ensure their children's future positions among the elite. The best toys will surely lead to the best schools and a successful future, right?